Start Me Up: From Beginner To Rocker In Just One Lesson?

This is really for the beginners, but it never hurts to brush up on the basics, even if you've been playing for a while.

Start Me Up: From Beginner To Rocker In Just One Lesson?
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I've taught a lot of people to play guitar over the years at one point I had more than 50 students per week and the following lesson is the result of hundreds of hours of teaching, as well as thousands of hours of riffing. This is really for the beginners, but it never hurts to brush up on the basics, even if you've been playing for a while.

It seems that these days everyone at least knows the mechanics of how to play guitar: hold the pick, press down the string behind the fret and hey presto, you're off! It's also pretty easy to tune a guitar thanks to a number of tuning programs online or smartphone apps. This lesson is going to assume that even if you're a beginner, you can find out how to tune a guitar.

The musical examples in this lesson are presented in tablature. For the uninitiated, imagine that the row of 6 lines are the 6 strings of your guitar. The bottom line represents the thickest string, and the top line represents the thinnest. The numbers represent the frets to put your fingers down on (actually, you'll get the clearest note if you press down just behind the fret, not on top of it and not too far away). A 0 means you don't fret that note, you just pick the string. If you see two numbers stacked on top of each other, play them at the same time. Like everything to do with guitar, tablature can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it.

Notes

There are notes all over the guitar neck. Every fret on every string represents a note, and a lot of them are duplicates of notes you can find elsewhere on the neck. We're going to focus just on the low E string for the purpose of this lesson, for reasons that'll become apparent a little later. For now, just know this: the great Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath only needed the bottom two strings to write and play such classic riffs as "Paranoid," "Iron Man" and "War Pigs!"

So here we have all the notes on the low E string, beginning with the "open" (unfretted) E note.


You'll see that as you move along the string you get a mixture of natural notes (E, F, G, A, B, C, D), and sharp notes (F#, G#, A#, C#, D#). The magical secret to help you memorize these notes is to focus on learning the positions of all the natural notes. You can kind of fill in the rest, and once you know where an F and a G are, you'll know that the note in between is an F# (also called a G flat depending on factors we won't go into here!).

Once you've learned where the natural notes are, you'll be able to break the fretboard up into groups of notes in your mind, rather than 12 individual ones. I like to think of them in the following groups: E-F-G, A-B-C, then D-E. Once you get to that next E at the 12th fret, the whole thing repeats. So after a while if you think of the 10th fret on the E string, you'll instantly know it's a D, and therefore you've got C# on one side and D# on the other.

Chords

The next step on the way to rock superstardom is mastery of the chord. A chord is basically two or more notes played at the same time. The foundation of rock music is the power chord (it's technical name is E5). The power chord is loud and it's angry and it's awesome.


You'll notice from the little chord charts that every single one of these chords is the same shape. All you need is two fingers (usually the first and third) or, in the case of the first E5, only one finger, as the bottom E note is an open string.

So once you've learned the names of the notes and the shape of a power chord, it's time to turn it into rock! I've provided a simple riff here. It consists of four power chords, each played eight times in an even, steady rhythm. Just 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 for each chord. Experiment with picking in different parts of the string and with lightly resting the edge of your picking hand against the strings right up at the bridge where they attach to the guitar. Vary the pressure until you hear that cool chug sound. That's called palm muting and it's essential for metal, punk and rock styles, so you might as well start learning to do it now!

Scales

Next, we need something to play over the top. Here's the E Minor Pentatonic scale, in both the open and 12th positions.


The Minor Pentatonic scale is very common in rock and blues. The important thing to remember with scales is that even though you typically learn them by playing them up and down as an exercise; when it comes to using them in a song, think of them as notes to choose from in creating your melody. Even if you randomly choose notes from the Em Pentatonic scale to play over the power chord riff above, the notes will fit and they'll sound pretty cool.

The most important thing is to not be shy about your note choices, and to really just go for it. Realize that even if you make a mistake, it's really not the end of the world: just keep playing. I can't stress that enough! Don't be afraid to hit a wrong note, because one wrong note will never sound as bad as a whole solo full of right notes played by someone who's so scared about hitting wrong notes that they never relax enough to play something expressive.

More Chords

Finally we have open chords and barre chords. I've listed the four most common chord types, Major, Minor, 7th and Minor 7th, in both open and barre positions (for a barre chord, lay your index finger flat across all the strings).


Once you get the barre chord shape down, you can play those chords anywhere on the neck. Want to play a G Minor? Take the minor shape and play it starting at the 3rd fret, where the G note we learned earlier is. Want to play a C#m7? Start at the 9th fret. Easy! The only hard part is this: for the barre chord shapes you need to lay your index finger across all 6 strings, and hold it down firmly enough that each note rings clearly. This won't sound right at first because your fingers need to develop calluses. Keep trying because it will sound right eventually. As for which fingers to use, the diagrams will help you there. The chord boxes once again represent the guitar neck, this time with the thickest string to the left and the thinnest to the right. The numbers along the bottom represent which finger to fret each string with.

Finally we have a simple chord song to give you an idea of how to use several of these chords in context. I've only provided a single strum in the music but try to add your own rhythm. A lot of players get really hung up on strumming patterns when they're first starting out but don't be afraid to approach it in a pretty relaxed way at first, and build up to inventing complicated up-down picking patterns and rhythms.


So that's the quick crash course in playing rock guitar. Hope it all makes sense it seems to have helped my students out, or at least none of them ever told me my teaching sucked, so I hope it helps. Happy shredding!

Thanks for the report to Peter Hodgson, Gibson.com.

47 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    Tmusician
    I really liked this! One thing to note is that a "power chord" is in reality an interval, and the definition of a chord is not two or more notes played simultaneously, but rather three or more. Overall I think this could be very helpful to a beginner!
    gocool
    The most important thing is to not be shy about your note choices, and to really just go for it. Realize that even if you make a mistake, its really not the end of the world: just keep playing. I cant stress that enough! Dont be afraid to hit a wrong note, because one wrong note will never sound as bad as a whole solo full of right notes played by someone whos so scared about hitting wrong notes that they never relax enough to play something expressive.
    man i wanted this from someone better than me from a long time.i just didn't know how to put it and he has put it in the most perfect way! one of the most inspirational lines in an Ultimate Guitar Article. Thanks for this!
    Tmusician
    I really liked this! One thing to note is that a "power chord" are in reality an interval, and the definition of a chord is not two or more notes played simultaneously, but rather three or more. Overall I think this could be very helpful to a beginner!
    sEdivad
    peppercorn: You're right, but learning a song you like is way more funny than just doing those exercises you found on a book. Of course you need to sight read, and you've got to know chords and scale, but I think that for an absolute beginner which has been playing for some days nothing is better(and encouraging) than learning a song to familiarize with the instrument.
    Marcus 90
    im a beginner guitarist, and this article was very useful, yeah barre chords can be really hard to get down, but i guess i just have to practice, and i will get them eventually
    RC52190
    gocool wrote: The most important thing is to not be shy about your note choices, and to really just go for it. Realize that even if you make a mistake, its really not the end of the world: just keep playing. I cant stress that enough! Dont be afraid to hit a wrong note, because one wrong note will never sound as bad as a whole solo full of right notes played by someone whos so scared about hitting wrong notes that they never relax enough to play something expressive. man i wanted this from someone better than me from a long time.i just didn't know how to put it and he has put it in the most perfect way! one of the most inspirational lines in an Ultimate Guitar Article. Thanks for this!
    My same thoughts, especially as a guitarist who struggles with this same problem, which roots from being a perfectionist. I think my biggest struggle is just being too uptight with my playing at times, because when I play more relaxed and just play what I want, even if I **** up, it's sounding good to me.
    VanTheKraut
    thomasnivek wrote: I can believe how people believe that a pick, a flipping pick is necessary to playing guitar. I play with both my hands, the whole hand (pinky to thumb.Somebody tell me please why that pick is so important.
    Congratulations, do you feel special now? A pick sharpens the attack whereas the fingers give a more loose sound, I prefer the sound of finger picking for acoustic and Im an accomplished classical guitarist, but I don't come on here and try to troll everyone with a pick.
    xlog
    Great article, maybe it's a little too much for a beginner to learn scales but great job.
    dragozan
    Great starting theory, I couldn't agree more that theory should be learnt as quickly and simply as you possibly can. It makes songwriting and improvising much easier down the line. The hardest thing though is to understand that if something sounds good, regardless if it's theoretically watertight, use it anyway! Like Mr Gibbs once said "They're more like guidelines". And like others have said before, learning some simple covers are great ways to kick-start confidence and familiarisation with the instrument, as long as they continuously change the difficulty of the songs, edit solos to their personal tastes etc. Make sure you don't go in circles, or guitar will become very boring very fast
    DjangoUnstrung
    I would've started with all the diatonic modes and then how to write chord progressions from them and THEN how to remove notes from a diatonic mode and turn it into a pentatonic scale. Most importantly I'd recommend as much ear training as possible. This article seems like a lot of beating around the bush. Beginning guitarists don't have dexterity yet but they're not stupid. It seems like guitarists only have trouble with the extremely important aforementioned stuff when they're weened onto it. They pick up bad habits by learning things in the wrong order.
    Reighnart
    Tmusician wrote: I really liked this! One thing to note is that a "power chord" are in reality an interval, and the definition of a chord is not two or more notes played simultaneously, but rather three or more. Overall I think this could be very helpful to a beginner!
    chuck h
    great lesson. got the power chord down and easily explained. can't get that bar chord to sound right to save my life! chuck h
    mhylands
    This was a well written lesson. Very glad someone can thoughtfully write out the basic guidelines like this. Also, for anyone talking about the lack of proper theory, techniques, or whether to use a pick, this is simply an introductory lesson for someone who wants to be able to pick up a guitar and play rock right away. If you start with all the technical aspects, many young rockers will be turned away as they will find the lesson boring. This gives a starting point to build off is all.
    jfreund
    Im just starting to learn Barre chords. My teatcher is having me learn Green Day Boulevard of broken dreams.Its not easy holding the first finger down and keeping it straight so you get the right sound
    peppercorn
    A beginning guitarist - or any musician for that matter - should be doing nothing but learning to sight read, learning basic chords & learning basic scales. Someone who knows how to play Paranoid is not a guitarist, they are just someone who knows how to play Paranoid. If you want to be a one trick pony, go for it but in 3 or 4 years time you'll still be a one or two trick pony. Structured learning is the only way to go about it.
    thomasnivek
    I can believe how people believe that a pick, a flipping pick is necessary to playing guitar. I play with both my hands, the whole hand (pinky to thumb.Somebody tell me please why that pick is so important.
    INSULIN
    LEARN TO PLAY MORE THAN 2 STRINGS GEEZ.THERES 6 STRINGS DAM IT USED THEM ALL HA HA
    KG6_Steven
    A chord is basically two notes played at the same time. Really? Uh, no. And you've been playing and teaching how long? Music theory teaches that a chord is three or more notes played together. In the case of the C major, it's C, E and G. That's a chord. Calling an E5, or any x5 chord a chord is really incorrect. Although they are commonly referred to as "power chords", the name is quite incorrect. It's just as wrong as calling the whammy bar on your guitar a trem. It's not a tremolo, but everyone seems to incorrectly call it that. It's actually a vibrato arm. So, please learn to use correct theory when teaching it, so the new guitarists don't learn it wrong. Let's teach them the correct way. Oh, and for the new guys out there... what's the difference between tremolo and vibrato and WHY is it NOT called a tremolo arm? Tremolo is the varying of the volume, while vibrato is the varying of the pitch around a center frequency.
    xXAlphaXx
    I'm actually starting to get this, one thing that confuses me though, is how that last cord is a G#6/F? Is that the same thing as Fm7? Was their a reason why it was written as G#6/F?
    ShackledDevil
    You'll get it man. Just keep practicing!
    chuck h wrote: great lesson. got the power chord down and easily explained. can't get that bar chord to sound right to save my life! chuck h
    finkling
    @xXAlphaXx that last chord is written wrong. It should be Fm7. The 5 signifies that the power chord isn't really a chord in the traditional sense, but a 5th interval (distance between two notes in a key - i.e. C to a G, C D E F G is 5 notes apart). It has no actual chord colour, like Major or minor, but is just two different notes creating a certain sound. Those struggling with barre chords - don't force your hands. Learn open chords first! Learning barre chords with weak technique and posture will result in hurting yourself. There are ergonomic and practical ways to play a barre without hurting yourself or flattening your entire first finger. This lesson can be a good pointer, but if you're struggling with concepts and need help please see a teacher, even once to make sure you're on the right path. Don't learn bad habits - they're bastards to reforge down the track.
    skild sic
    not bad ive been playing for 11 yrs and never took a single lesson on guitar so this is something even i could take lessons from and i hope learning all these lessons will help my songwriting
    Iwantastrat
    This seems to cover everything to do with Guitaring. Now, where's my Guitar at...
    amazingxmanda
    I'm a beginner, but I guess I'm more of a beginner than most. I was starting to understand what he was talking about, but then midway through the article I got lost. Very very lost. I'll save the article to re read after I understand more later though =) thank you!
    nartygates
    I'm a beginner, this article was really helpful and I have a better understanding now. Thanks a bunch!
    Teddyriffick
    This is a very good lesson, everything is explained very well and nothing seems to be over-complicated. I found this very helpful and I'm sure any beginner would find it helpful too, great work !
    thomasnivek
    VanTheKraut wrote: thomasnivek wrote: I can believe how people believe that a pick, a flipping pick is necessary to playing guitar. I play with both my hands, the whole hand (pinky to thumb.Somebody tell me please why that pick is so important. Congratulations, do you feel special now? A pick sharpens the attack whereas the fingers give a more loose sound, I prefer the sound of finger picking for acoustic and Im an accomplished classical guitarist, but I don't come on here and try to troll everyone with a pick.
    Heideck
    I've been playing for 6 years and I'm learning a friend how to play, I used your article and it helped him a lot, thanks, well written, I hope you'll write article on intermediate and advance level
    robb11
    thomasnivek wrote: I can believe how people believe that a pick, a flipping pick is necessary to playing guitar. I play with both my hands, the whole hand (pinky to thumb.Somebody tell me please why that pick is so important.
    well, your right, you dont need a pick to play guitar, like for the longest time i didnt use one, but unless you just work the **** out of your fingers, your not gonna be able to tremelo pick that well, and sometimes the sounds that come with using a pick just work better, especially if your looking for that beefy sound. it also is alot easier on your hands
    jsom63
    KG6_Steven wrote: A chord is basically two notes played at the same time. Really? Uh, no. And you've been playing and teaching how long? Music theory teaches that a chord is three or more notes played together. In the case of the C major, it's C, E and G. That's a chord. Calling an E5, or any x5 chord a chord is really incorrect. Although they are commonly referred to as "power chords", the name is quite incorrect. It's just as wrong as calling the whammy bar on your guitar a trem. It's not a tremolo, but everyone seems to incorrectly call it that. It's actually a vibrato arm. So, please learn to use correct theory when teaching it, so the new guitarists don't learn it wrong. Let's teach them the correct way. Oh, and for the new guys out there... what's the difference between tremolo and vibrato and WHY is it NOT called a tremolo arm? Tremolo is the varying of the volume, while vibrato is the varying of the pitch around a center frequency.
    OptionParalysis
    I screwed myself when I was beginning. Taking me longer to undo these mistakes I had ingrained in my playing. But oh well can go back in time. but helpful article
    stupidsnuffles
    I've been self-taught for nearly 4 years and I didn't really know the names of the power chords but I knew how to play them. This article is wonderful! But I can't play barred chords if my life depended on them -.- Definitely saving this article.
    blakeT
    Dude...if only I'd known about UG when I started. Great article!
    peppercorn
    sEdivad wrote: peppercorn: You're right, but learning a song you like is way more funny than just doing those exercises you found on a book. Of course you need to sight read, and you've got to know chords and scale, but I think that for an absolute beginner which has been playing for some days nothing is better(and encouraging) than learning a song to familiarize with the instrument.
    I agree, it's just that there are a lot of bad habits that form under the radar and unless they are hit on the head early undoing them is extremely hard and frustrating. There is no replacement for learning correctly from the start. A fifteen minute ****-around at the end of serious practice is a good compromise.